Famed bank whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld launched his tell-all memoir Lucifer’s Banker last week at the National Press Club with a harsh indictment of the nearby headquarters of the U.S. Justice Department.
Birkenfeld, described earlier this year by CNBC as “the most significant financial whistleblower of all time,” attacked law enforcers as being cowardly, self-seeking and deceitful in monitoring crime by top financial institutions that help the wealthy commit massive frauds on taxes. The schemes hide money, sometimes ill-gotten, and thus may hurt the criminals’ spouses, business colleagues, fellow citizens, and governments.
Birkenfeld, 51, helped American authorities recover an estimated $15 billion in back taxes, interest and penalties from wealthy tax cheats who worked with his former employer, UBS, the world’s largest bank. UBS is at the center of Switzerland’s notoriously secretive system helped the wealthy duck debtors and facilitate crime that includes drug and arms trafficking.
“The great irony,” Birkenfeld told about 80 guests guests at the press club Oct. 18 (as shown in our photo), “is that the only banker imprisoned for the financial scandals was me, the whistleblower.”
“The problem,” he continued in an interview the next day with RT, “is the U.S. Department of Justice is corrupt.”
His Lucifer’s Banker memoir, subtitled The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Bank Secrecy, is an engaging, important and otherwise compelling overview of his unique, courageous role in exposing and reforming Switzerland’s system of secret banking for the world’s mega-rich.
His story also shows how he endured a 40-month prison sentence. After serving 31 months (with time off for good behavior), he is now free to tell the tale, bolstered by $104 million (before taxes) that he and his lawyers managed to obtain as reward money despite the best efforts of Justice Department tormentors to hinder the full force of his disclosures.
Particularly important is that authorities — and not just the Justice Department but also Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her colleagues — sought to protect in his view many of the rich and powerful tax cheats who could have been exposed.
Birkenfeld says he outlined to authorities precisely how they could have obtained the names and other records of all 19,000 of the UBS customers availing themselves of secret accounts. Also, he told prosecutors how they could capture all UBS bankers entering the United States on phony customs declarations, thereby enabling prosecutors to squeeze the bankers to cooperate in criminal cases against the tax cheats and foster reform through such additional avenues as Senate oversight hearings.
But, he argues, U.S. authorities obtained only 4,500 names that UBS cherry-picked in mysterious ways. He believes the bank and compliant authorities protected the vast bulk of the most politically influential tax cheats. That deprived taxpayers, he argues, of even greater reimbursement than the $12 billion (plus interest and penalties) that IRS recouped.
More generally, he portrays a corrupt and incompetent oversight landscape that is marred also by often-timid and misguided defense counsel typically available whisteblowers, even though he could afford top lawyers and researched extensively those available.
Despite roadblocks, his saga proceeds in a buoyant manner in describing how he overcame the obstacles for the most part, aided by his final team of lawyers from the National Whistleblower Center. He provides kudos to the Internal Revenue Service, which he calls the most effective, non-political and otherwise admirable of the oversight bodies he encountered.
Praise for the IRS is not the only unconventional aspect of this memoir. So is his admiration for the rigorous training he received at Vermont’s Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military academy. Also, he is proud of his luxurious and libidinous lifestyle as a high-paid banker. In a convoluted but ultimately convincing way, such diverse experiences led him to the monumental risks and results of his whistleblowing.
Today’s column draws from his case, his powerful memoir and his appearance last week in the nation’s capital. Our conclusion? His harsh words against the Justice Department and the overall structure it exemplifies appear to be justified, although we recognize that many thousands of employees labor also each day to live up to the DOJ’s aspirational goals of delivering justice.
In concluding this, we draw upon years of reporting here documenting other injustices by top federal authorities involving both their whitewashes that protect the powerful and their remarkably harsh treatment to political targets, including whistleblowers.
Readers are familiar with the threats to democracy inflicted by the Justice Department on many political prisoners and/or whistleblowers.
As a few examples reported here through the years: Privacy advocates, whistleblowers and political targets Edward Snowden, Joseph Nacchio, Thomas Drake (a civic hero shown at right in a Noel St. John photo at the National Press Club), Jesselyn Raddack and John Kyriakou; the still-imprisoned former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and the political targets (such as Richard Scrushy, Tamara Grimes, Gary White, and Dana Jill Simpson) who courageously supported one of the Deep South’s most prominent Democrats during his 2006 Justice Department frame-up; President John F. Kennedy’s former Secret Service guard Abraham Bolden, a black officer who tried to warn the Warren Commission about racial hatred against JFK within the protective service but instead found himself imprisoned on trumped up DOJ charges; and many more DOJ victims.
Several of them were honored guests at Birkenfeld’s book launch last week. What follows is our take on the Bradley Birkenfeld story and its continuing importance to you.